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Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 27476


Mr HUNT (7:03 PM) —This bill is a snorter. The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 is a ripper. It does two things. Firstly, it is about improving safety for Commonwealth employees—something about which I am sure all members of this House are in unanimous agreement. Secondly, it does this by bringing about and providing free choice. So it achieves a desirable end through an ideal means.

I came to this House as a metalworker, as a storeman, as somebody who had earned a wage in business and also in government employ. Through those different lines of activity I have seen some of the best and worst of the workplace. I am not an enemy of unions, but I have seen some unions which have played a very important role and I have seen union activity which has been utterly contrary to all good practice. I have been in a situation where, for working quickly as a storeman, I was threatened with an accident. I remember it very clearly. It was one of the defining moments of my youth. When working as a storeman and packer at Consolidated Liquor in Huntingdale, I and all of the people who were working quickly had messages given to us in a very clear and open way. That was not about occupational health and safety; that was about a work-to-rule notion. That was about a notion that those who worked with higher productivity in some way threatened.

This bill is not about breaking unions or anything like that. It is about dealing with two things: firstly, improving safety for Commonwealth employees and, secondly, doing so through providing an appropriate, tailored means for each individual workplace. Given that it is about the Public Service, I wanted to make these comments. I think we have an outstanding Public Service in Australia. There are areas of inefficiency and there are areas of great expertise. I want to put on record my particular thanks to all those people who make sacrifices and forgo salaries which they could otherwise make in the private sector by choosing to pursue issues of national importance and by having a belief in the country through the Public Service. There are many people in many different sectors within the Commonwealth Public Service who make sacrifices and who take for themselves opportunities which might bring less financial remuneration than they might otherwise have had. But they do so because of a belief and because of the capacity to have an influence on the affairs, the progress and the events of the nation.

We have to acknowledge that sometimes, in looking at safeguards, we make a trade-off with excellence. Sometimes this trade-off is unnecessary. By imposing a one-size-fits-all rule there can be an unnecessary trade-off. This bill seeks to redress that problem. It does so in a way which is, I believe, progressive. If I am asked to define my philosophy, more than anything else it is what you might call a progressive philosophy. I go back to the very words on which the Liberal Party was founded—Menzies' words. To paraphrase: we chose the word `liberal' because we believed in a progressive society and a progressive philosophy. That is what I believe in and that is what I believe this bill does. It does so by allowing for tailored responses to individual workplaces.

The background to this bill is simple. The Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991 was designed to limit the effects of physical injury and illness in the workplace. It provided a legal basis and a set of standards for activity. It was an important step forward. Under the act, a duty of care was prescribed for employers and workers to outline their health and safety responsibilities, but this was done in a structured and inflexible manner. This bill will further improve protection for employees of the Commonwealth by allowing for tailored responses within each individual workplace and set of circumstances. It confirms the government's determination to provide safer workplaces but ones which, at the same time, are more appropriate and more efficient.

The importance of the bill is sixfold. There are six core elements as to why the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 should proceed with full haste and pass through both houses of this parliament. Firstly, the bill is important because workplace, health and safety measures can be further improved at the Commonwealth level. How do you do this? You can do this by allowing employers increased flexibility to negotiate strategies for safer workplaces with their employees. Together, they work towards a common understanding—one that takes into account the conditions of the individual workplace rather than the conditions imposed by a third party. It is about assessing between employer and employee what is actually necessary to resolve the situation in any one workplace.

Secondly, this bill is important because employers will be required to develop safety management arrangements in direct communication with employees. It is not only about the exchange of information but also about the dialogue. It forces the two sides to get together. So it is not some hypothetical concept; it is about the people in the workplace at the managerial and the administrative levels working together to understand, consult and produce a set of outcomes. Thirdly, the bill is important because, currently, there is a typical one-size-fits-all approach to occupational health and safety for Commonwealth employees, which was characteristic of the legislation of the early 1990s. This fails to recognise the fact that so many Commonwealth workplace situations can be unique. They each have their own set of circumstances and factors.

Fourthly, the bill is important because, under current legislation, employers and employees cannot work together directly on health and safety conditions where there is a union presence. That is an extraordinary provision. It is an extraordinary constraint and prohibition that, where there is a union presence, direct negotiations between employer and employee are prevented. This bill seeks to overcome that patently absurd constraint on the conduct of relations between employers and employees. Fifthly, the legislation is important because it encourages compliance with occupational health and safety requirements. Whilst there is flexibility, it comes with a strong background. There is a clear, potent enforcement mechanism behind it—that is, it provides for civil and, in some cases, criminal penalties. These penalties have been increased and, interestingly, the ACTU have generally supported these increases. In that situation, yes, there should be greater flexibility but, no, that flexibility should never be an excuse for ensuring that there is a lack of safety. Sixthly, and finally, the bill streamlines the annual reporting requirements of Commonwealth agencies. In essence, it is about producing a set of results, not a process of red tape.

Those are the core elements of this bill and the reasons why it is important. Above all else, it is about allowing employers and employees to define and design their own set of safety regulations but to do so with a very clear set of penalties in the background if anybody squibs it. That is the way this bill operates, and it does so through applying an approach and a philosophy of generally greater freedom. Those are the two important things: safety and freedom—but with a clear set of penalties as a backdrop in case anybody tries to or does abuse the situation.

In conclusion, there is one additional reform which I would like to see in the future. I think that there is a lack of flexibility within the Commonwealth Public Service in the ease with which people can flow in and out of the service. There is an enormous amount to be gained within the private sector from having people from the Commonwealth Public Service flow in and out of it and an enormous amount to be gained within the Commonwealth Public Service from having a greater inflow and outflow of people from the private sector. The walls between the two should be far more permeable. That is an important step forward. Sure, we need to develop expertise, but each can benefit from having the experience of the other within it. Commonwealth Public Service employees should spend more time in the private sector and private sector employees would benefit from working within the Commonwealth sector. Together, that creates greater understanding between business and government. So, in addition to this bill, I would strongly urge—and it will be one of the things I work towards during my time in this place—that there be greater permeability and interchange between the private sector and the public sector with regard to employment experiences.

As I said at the outset, I think the reforms in this bill are tremendous. I am delighted to support the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002. I thank all of those people in the employ of the Commonwealth who commit to this country, who work for the country and who believe in the country. I commend the bill to the House, and I urge its passage.